Divine Fate by Audrey M. Insoft

Audrey M. Insoft lives with her husband and son in Westchester County, New York.  There’s no information in her book, Divine Fate (Dog Ear, 304 pp., $19.95, paper), on her military experience, but she does tell us: “I met Sandy and Paul Pinkerton in September of 2000 when they facilitated the adoption of my son Alexander.”  Insoft goes on to tell the reader that her adoption of Alexander involved a trip to Vietnam. 

The true story that Insoft tells in this book is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews with the Pinkertons. “This is neither a war book nor an adoption book,” the author writes. But I can see where a reader might think it is both. 

Insoft uses the first eighty pages or so to give us the back stories of both Paul and Sandy Pinkerton. We learn quite a bit about Paul’s Vietnam War tour of duty. He was in the 1st Infantry Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized.)  His unit was Headquarters Company, of the 1st Infantry Battalion, 61st Infantry (Mechanized.)  He was a member of a 4.2 mortar platoon, and was stationed in an area called Leatherneck Square. That area included Con Thien, “a fire support base located so close to the Demilitarized Zone… that on a clear day you could see the North Vietnamese flag flapping in the breeze.” 

Paul Pinkerton was a Forward Observer (FO), which entailed calling in fire missions, providing the coordinates so that massive firepower could be brought to bear on the enemy.  Keep in mind that it was General William Westmoreland who promised that it would be massive firepower that would win the American war in Vietnam. Pinkerton’s job required him to carry the AN/PRC radio.
To me, the description of Paul Pinkerton’s tour of duty in Vietnam is the most powerful part of the book. The author’s interviews did a great job of getting the details.  Insoft’s writing is excellent and clear, but very dense and necessitates careful reading. The reasons that Pinkerton was compelled to adopt a Vietnamese child, and also felt the need to become an adoption facilitator, are spelled out in these pages. They are related to his reasons for his initial return to Vietnam to search for POW’s and MIA’s. This search and the adoption of the child Isaiah partially relieved Paul of the sins he’d committed during his war, sins he’d secretly believed he could never be absolved of.

Insoft also explores in detail the reasons for Sandy Pinkerton’s decision to go to Vietnam with her husband. Part of the reason for her going to Vietnam was that she suspected he had another family hidden away there. She discovered that he did not.

Insoft introduces the reader to Vietnam veterans who have such whacky ideas that I shook my head in disbelief.  One who planned to accompany Paul to Vietnam on one of the early trips was convinced that POWs were being held in a cave in downtown Danang and that he and other veterans could go in there with automatic weapons and liberate them.

Late in the book, an issue close to my heart arises. Paul Pinkerton is diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he is convinced (as am I) is due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The man is still alive at the end of this book. No evidence is apparent that he sought care from the VA for his cancer. The Pinkertons moved to Florida so Paul could receive cancer treatment at the Dattoli Cancer Center.

I recommend this book to those who wish to read about the troubles and challenges facing those compelled to adopt Vietnamese children in the earlier days, including eye-opening details of how unhelpful some American officials could choose to be. Our tax dollars pay them, but it is made clear that this fact did not translate always to an effort to do the right thing for hard-working, sincere Americans desperately striving to right old wrongs.

I couldn’t help but think that the American official (called Mark in the book) was acting (or not acting) out of pure spitefulness, because America had lost our war with Vietnam.

The author’s website is audreyminsoft.com

—David Willson

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Crimes of Redemption by Linda L. McDonald

The early section of Linda L. McDonald’s novel Crimes of Redemption (Roadrunner Press, 312 pp., $24) reads like a Cormac McCarthy novel. The violence and the depth that develops in the characters brings to mind what McCarthy wrote in No Country for Old Men.

The main characters are revealed as scarred and nearly broken from the burdens they carry. The sheriff of the small town in Oklahoma is a pot-smoking former Vietnam War POW trying to escape from life by toking up. Gayla is a crack whore undergoing a trial for murder. Willie is a lonely old recluse on the plains of the Oklahoma panhandle who gets caught up in the lives of others.

The trial portion of the story has elements of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird because of all the small-town hatred that comes out in the proceedings. In a typical romantic novel, by definition, the good guys seem to triumph. This is an interesting escape novel in many ways. I was impressed with the character development, but since the author is also involved in theater, I better understand her ability to create well-rounded and fully developed characters. Perhaps other theater people should consider writing novels.

Of all the characters in the novel, the Vietnam veteran’s story is the one that directly appeals to the reader. Tommy Maynard was a pilot in the war. He flew in a spotter plane and was shot down. He was captured and held as a POW in “the Zoo,” where he was frequently tortured by a Cuban guard they called “Fidel.”

In fact, North Vietnamese POW prisons, including the one nicknamed “the Zoo,” did have a couple of Spanish-speaking Caucasians doing dirty work, and one of them was known as “Fidel.” Maynard’s incarceration and treatment by his captors caused him to leave behind that part of him that was human and caused him on his return to become a drifter who self medicated with pot. Like the other protagonists, he is in need of redemption.

It is that journey that allows him and the other two main characters the opportunity to regain a semblance of a human existence.

The author also creates a community of Vietnam veterans living in a small village in Mexico. The reality of this existence can be seen in a memoir by Vietnam veteran Jack Tumidajski, Quadalajara. I

The author seems to have done some research in creating this novel by connecting several elements related to Vietnam veterans.

—John Lavelle

Blood On the Battlefield by Preston S. Williams

Preston S. Williams enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on July 11, 1967, less than a month after he graduated from high school in California. “I was proud to serve my country and looked forward to my new career in the Air Force,” Williams writes in his memoir, Blood on the Battlefield: A Combat Medic’s Story of Service to God and Country (iUniverse, 122 pp., $12.95, paper).

After Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Williams went to Sheppard AF Base (which he calls “Shepherd”) to train as a Medical Service Specialist. His first duty station was Clark AFB in the Philippines where he treated many casualties of the Vietnam War. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, and arrived in country in November of 1969. His first duty station was the 483rd Medical Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay. Williams was severely wounded in a rocket attack at his next assignment in Pleiku, which ended his Vietnam tour of duty.

In his book, which contains more than a few misspellings and grammatical errors, WIlliams describes his tour of duty and what life was like for him after the war, including dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

—Marc Leepson

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors edited by Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout announces in the introduction to Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 256 pp., $15) that the intent of this anthology is that it “will become an annual series.”  Swartwout, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State, also is the director of the University Press. The book is a co-production of the Press, the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Projects, and the Warrior Arts Alliance.

This anthology contains excellent writing dealing with America’s wars, from World War II up to and including our current wars. It is hard to tell at a glance which war gets the major attention.

I was pleased to note the title of the first piece in the book, “First Day at An Khe.”  Monty Joynes’s short story sets a high standard for the rest of the book as it is one of the most powerful, moving, and well written-stories of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.

Monty Jooynes

Monty Joynes

Phil, a corpsman, arrives in country and without being in-processed is dumped into triage duty for days to deal with an onslaught of the wounded and dying. The First Sergeant of the Hospital company abandons Phil to those duties, which he bravely does until he’s covered with blood, excrement, and vomit and passing out from fatigue and hunger. All the horrifying essence of the carnage of the Vietnam War is distilled and encapsulated in this superb story.  Joynes is the fiction winner for this collection, chosen by William Trent Pancoast, author of Wildcat.

I can’t give this level of attention to every piece in this collection, but I assure prospective readers that this anthology is the best you’ll ever find. The World War II entry by Paul Mims, “Rockhappy, 1944-45,” is as worthy as the An Khe piece, but as different as it can be. There’s some of the flavor of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, but with elements of Catch-22 madness. Mark Bowden was the judge who picked this nonfiction piece as a winner.

I usually am not much impressed by the quality of war poetry in a mixed genre anthology, but I had high hopes for the poetry in this collection because the judge was Brian Turner, author of Here Bullet.  My high hopes for Gerado Mena’s “Baring the Trees” were not dashed. There were echoes of Villon’s more doom-laden poetry in Trees, but it was still totally its own poem. Great stuff.

This anthology is a deluxe production in every way—the cover art, editing, proof reading. The reader can dip into it and find excellence on every page.

My favorite piece in the book is Russell Reece’s Vietnam War story, “In Less Than a Minute.”  It is an up-river Mekong journey into the horrifying Heart of Darkness that was the Vietnam War, just seven pages but more memorable and powerful than dozens of full-length Vietnam War novels I have read.

Buy this anthology and keep it by your bedside to dip into and read before you turn out the lights at night. That practice will guarantee nightmares about America’s choice to engage the world in one war after the other. This anthology is one of the few positive byproducts of our national predilection for war.

—David Willson

Goodbye Emily by Michael Murphy

The garish, tie-dyed cover of Goodbye Emily by Michael Murphy (Koehler, 270 pp., $16.95, paper) fairly shouts that the book is about the psychedelic sixties.That is a form of truth in packaging as the focus of the book is Woodstock and what befell three friends who made that pilgrimage and whose lives were changed by that great adventure.

The hero of the book is a broken down old English professor, Walter Fitzgerald Ellington. He’s pining away with a broken heart for the love of his life, Emily, whom he met and fell in love with at Woodstock. Emily died of cancer, and Professor Ellington was riffed from his tenured faculty position at Milton College around the same time.

His life becomes aimless and centered on the joys of the bottle. He conceives the notion of returning to Woodstock to scatter Emily’s ashes. His companions for this journey can only be the buddies he went to the giant 1969 rock festival with in the first place.

Professor Ellington reactivates those long-ignored friendships, which is not easy. One of his old buddies is Buck, a damaged Vietnam veteran who carries with him the gruesome image of an ambush near Danang. The image of Buck’s sergeant’s severed bloody head rolling into his lap has fueled his nightmares for decades. The mortar round that took off his sergeant’s head also left Buck with a shrapnel wound to his knee.

The other buddy is Josh, a sixties folk singer languishing in a nursing home totally out of touch with reality due to advanced Alzheimer’s. It proves necessary to kidnap Josh from the facility for him to be a part of this “roadtrip”—a word Josh says over and over during their journey. This journey is made in Emily’s old van, which Buck decorates with psychedelic paint and a large peace sign.

This heart-warming but sad tale is told effectively in back and forth chapters, from the present to the actual weekend of Woodstock. I liked the historical Woodstock sections best, but both parts of the story are very well told.

Michael Murphy

I didn’t go to Woodstock, but I did attend several rock festivals of that sort, and I think the author does an excellent job of summoning up that long-gone era. He does that in a positive and life-embracing way that made me nostalgic for the sixties and all that entailed.

I couldn’t help but think that those were better times, mud and all. Of course, part of the reason for thinking that way is that now I am old, sick, and dying of Agent Orange-caused cancer. That might explain some of the emotions I brought to this novel.

One of my heroes, Jimi Hendrix, makes an appearance near the end of the chapters on Woodstock. The author does a nice job with a scene between Jimi and our hero and Emily.

Mostly, though, I do not agree with the cover blurb that characterizes this book as “irreverently funny.” I am willing to concede that the problem is likely with me, as this journey of self-discovery seems more one of sadness than joy. No matter what personal discoveries the professor makes—and he makes some—Emily, the love of his life, is still dead. That cannot be changed.

You can’t go home again, and you can’t go back to Woodstock again, either.  We’re shown the main characters at the beginning of their lives, teenagers in love with life, and then we’re shown these people near the end. Sad stuff to me.

The professor does overcome his emotional problems, and sets about going on with his life. So in that sense, the novel is positive. But Josh still is dying of Alzheimer’s and Buck still has shrapnel in his knee.

We are meant to see that the journey has reawakened their lives and helped them in their relationships with others, and that has happened.

Goodbye Emily is a powerful trip back in time, and also forward to the possibility of new lives. I recommend it to those who look for some hope near the end of the line.

The author’s web site is www.mjmurphy.com

—David Willson

Apocalypse Hotel by Ho An Thai

Apocalypse Hotel: A Novel by Ho An Thai (Texas Tech University Press, 144 pp., $24.95) is a handsome production, in hardcover, with great art on the dust jacket. A cover blurb by Susan Swartout informs the reader that this author is “considered the most important writer of Vietnam’s post-war generation.”

The author, Ho An Thai, was born in Hanoi in 1960. I assume he spent the war in Hanoi, although we are not told. Initially, I had an image of him as one of those teen-aged “cowboys” aboard a motor scooter who spent his time terrorizing pedestrians in the crowded streets of Saigon when I was there in 1966-67, but that is unlikely.

Ho Anh Thai

The introduction by Wayne Karlin informs us that Danang Publishing House published Apocalypse Hotel after all the other publishers in the country refused it. It has sold 50,000 copies and has had ten printings in Vietnam.

A summary of the book says it is “a cautionary tale about how wars meant to liberate can nevertheless present degrading aftereffects and unforeseen consequences.” Karlin’s introduction warns the prospective reader of “suicidal motor scooter races,” and the occasional goat strangling. Karlin is not kidding. There is even a grisly episode of cannibalism, which disturbed my enthusiasm for my hamburger patty lunch.

I found this short novel heavy going at first, and I wondered what Wayne Karlin’s role in adapting this little book involved since it is not spelled out.  Did he chop out stuff that slowed down the plot? I doubt it, but I wondered.  Karlin—a novelist, memoirist and essayist who served as U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War—is credited in this edition as one of the authors.

Wayne Karlin

One annoying anomaly of this book is that although American slang is frequently used (such as the word “grab-ass,”)  often effectively, the translator, Jonathan R. S. McIntyre, chose to give all measurements in French. For instance, the weight of dead people is described in kilos instead of pounds. This was odd and confusing to me as I never had a clue about the height or weight of anybody.

I admit that when the author describes a person as being like Tarzan, (he does this twice), I figured that the guy was big. I could have abandoned the text and got out paper and pencil and worked out the equivalent measurements in American terms, but I lacked that impulse.

This little book is described as being fast-paced, and I guess it is once it gets going; it does move right along. Is this book a fable or a fairly accurate portrait of life in 1990’s Vietnam, told in the form of a sordid mystery about the deaths of three young men who are nephews to the narrator, Uncle Dong? Maybe it is both.

As the book gained momentum and the bodies piled up, I often found myself comparing it to Crash, a classic novel of highway mayhem by the great J. G. Ballard.

Uncle Dong suspects the culprit responsible for the mysterious deaths of the three young men is a beautiful young woman, Mai Trung, who seems to possess unearthly powers.  “As she got older, Mai Trung understood that she carried within her a current of lethal human electrical power that reacted against people with evil intentions.”  She is, you could say, a sort of human electrical stingray.

Much of this book is devoted to Uncle Dong’s pursuit of this young woman, and lengthy philosophical ruminations about the nature of good and evil and what it all means.

There are many and frequent references to the American war in Vietnam and America’s efforts to bomb the country into the Stone Age by what are referred to as “American pirates of the sky.”  These passages are very poetical, but also terribly culture bound.

The point of view of this author is that Americans dropped a lot of bombs on Vietnam, which surprised me because I encounter exactly the opposite point of view in the literature of the war produced by Americans who seem to think we failed to drop enough bombs to do the job properly. For that reason alone—that is, getting a different angle on our war—this book was worth reading.

The author did not seem aware that the Vietnamese invited us to invade that lovely little country and to drop as many bombs as we wanted to drop, so as to defeat the spread of worldwide communism. I suspect that the state-controlled education that this author received failed to put forward that historical truism.

I recommend this novel to those who are looking for a powerfully different look at the effects of our war in Vietnam. I admit that I was relieved when I finished the book, and didn’t have to read any more about the smell of the dead bodies in the morgue and the like.

—David Willson

A Reluctant Warrior by John Henningson

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968. He was a high school science teacher at the time, and joined the Army mainly because the draft was breathing down his neck. “I enlisted into the Army just ahead of the inevitable draft,” Henningson says in A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1974: An Artillery Officer’s Story (Henningson Environmental Services, 262 pp., paper).

Henningson says he was, “in my own words, ‘a reluctant warrior,’ but I saw no personally acceptable alternative to answering my Country’s call. I enlisted in order to assure an opportunity to get into the Officer Candidate Program.”

Henningson received his commission in 1969 in the Artillery. During his ten-month, 1970-71 Vietnam War tour of duty, he spent most of his time with infantry units: as an artillery FO with B Company, 1st/52 Infantry, and as battalion artillery liaison officer with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry. Both units were part of the Americal Division.

This detailed memoir covers the author’s tour throughout I Corps. It includes grid coordinates of the locations Henningson talks about, along with his sketches of the landscape, maps, and in-country photos.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—Marc Leepson

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The author in Vietnam